The threat of an external force

Is there anything common between women voting for a misogynistic Donald Trump and widespread support against the Jallikattu ban?


US President Donald Trump. Photo: AP
US President Donald Trump. Photo: AP

The US electorate has very puritanical expectations about their presidential candidates. But how did that electorate, more so the women, vote for Donald Trump, who spoke so horribly about women?

Even the most famous of the jallikattu events in Tamil Nadu attracts no more than 10,000 spectators at best. But why did hundreds of thousands of people across Tamil Nadu come out on the streets to protest against the jallikattu ban?

Is there anything common between the behaviours of these two very diverse groups of people living in two very different parts of the world?

Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Globalization was one of the most significant social, political and economic phenomena of the past few decades. In the age of the jet plane and satellite dish, in the age of global capitalism and global mass media, various commentators claimed that the world was rapidly becoming one.

But the world seems to have changed a lot in the last few months. The events post the election of President Trump have accentuated this feeling of sudden change. Even a year back it would have been impossible to believe that the US, a country built by immigrants, would close its borders to immigrants, or that Britain, which built colonies all over the world, would become a recluse that wanted to sever ties with its European neighbours.

Futurologist John Naisbitt had predicted that every strong social trend would generate a counter-balancing human response. What we are witnessing around us, today from the US to Britain to Marina beach in Chennai, are strong human reactions to the forces of globalization.

It is not coincidental that trends against globalization are emerging from the US, the poster boy of multinational trade. Gordon W. Allport in his famous book, The Nature Of Prejudice, had predicted (in the 1950s itself) that conditions in the US were ripe for abundant group conflict and prejudice. Allport suggested that in a homogenous society or in a society where heterogeneity is “frozen” over a long period of time, there would be few chances for conflict to occur. But a heterogeneous society (as the US is) where there is active vertical mobility, that has members who were assumed to belong to lower classes rise in stature to replace the traditional aristocracy, the situation is ripe for conflict.

One of the most efficient weapons of social conflict is the creation of in-groups. Familiarity provides an indispensable basis for human existence. The human brain prefers to operate in familiar surroundings, with familiar people, dealing with familiar situations. Thus we tend to create quick divisions of the world between “us” and “them” and tend to imagine “us” as better. A whole host of cognitive biases ensue: from “in-group bias” to the “not invented here” syndrome. According to the French biologist Félix le Dantec, every social unit, from a family to the nation, exists as a strong in-group only by virtue of having some “common enemy”. The existence of an out-group is an essential condition for building a feeling of togetherness and strong bond between members of an in-group.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “What So Many People Don’t Get About The US Working Class”, Joan C. Williams, a prominent feminist legal scholar, writes about the deeper psychological concerns of the white working class in the US. A vast majority of these Americans didn’t have a college degree and so could not take advantage of the globalization wave. For that matter, many of them lost their jobs—the victims of globalization. At the same time, they witnessed the vertical mobility of an African-American becoming the president of the country and a woman vying to become the president. While the world around them was crumbling, they saw several others who belonged to the less privileged segments flourishing. The situation was perfect for an in-group, out-group polarization.

And Trump did take full advantage of the situation. Throughout his campaign, he projected himself as the saviour of the white working class. He always reminded them of their enemies in China and Mexico who stole their jobs in the name of globalization. The strong in-group feeling he managed to create among the white working class allowed Trump to get away with several of his weaknesses, including his trash talk. White working-class women voted overwhelmingly for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 62% to 34%.

The angst against globalization is creating other trends too. According to B. Meyer and P. Geschiere, a dialectic emerges from the flow generated by the forces of globalization. Globalization is countered by an equally vigorous cultural closure, a search for fixed orientation points and action frames, as well as determined efforts to affirm one’s old culture and construct new boundaries to protect one’s traditions.

What we witnessed at Marina beach a few weeks back was an example of cultural closure—an overwhelming desire by the people of Tamil Nadu to protect their culture from the interference of outsiders. It did not matter that the orientation was around jallikattu, probably not the best representation of Tamil culture; what mattered was the singular determination to hold on to one’s own traditions.

As a global citizen, the behaviour of the US electorate or the behaviour of the crowd that gathered at Marina beach protesting the jallikattu ban might look irrational. But if we see it as the response of an in-group that is threatened by an external force, the forces of globalization, their behaviour will look very normal.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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